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By Bill Wichert August 15, 2011

Democratic group claims New Jersey’s pension and health benefit reform destroys bargaining rights for public-sector employees

The roar of the protests outside the Statehouse has faded, but a new group of Democratic activists is going after the Democratic legislators who sided with Republican Gov. Chris Christie in supporting New Jersey’s pension and health benefits reform.

Referring to its targets as "Christie-crats," NJ-CAN kicked off a petition drive last week calling for the removal of Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) from their leadership posts. Both legislators helped craft the pension and health benefits legislation, and voted for the bill.

The petition, which was posted on the group's website on Aug. 9, states: "Sweeney and Oliver betrayed core principles of the Democratic Party by engineering the passage of Governor Christie’s State Pension and Health Benefits Bill, including the destruction of public sector collective bargaining rights."

PolitiFact New Jersey decided to check whether the bill includes "the destruction of public sector collective bargaining rights," and found that NJ-CAN is exaggerating the impacts on unions’ rights.

The legislation weakens collective bargaining rights, but doesn’t destroy them.

"It is destructive to all collective bargaining without being the destruction of it all," said Hetty Rosenstein, state director of the Communication Workers of America, the largest union representing state workers.

Now, let’s talk about how the pension and health benefits bill affects union workers.

Signed into law by Christie on June 28, the legislation mandates higher payments from workers for pension and health care expenses, but the impact on union negotiations concerns the health care piece. Pension contributions have not been collectively bargained, but instead set by state statute.

Health care expenses have been part of negotiations, but the higher health care contributions outlined in the legislation are non-negotiable for four years. For workers under an existing union contract, the higher contributions and four-year time frame begin when their contract expires.

But the legislation doesn’t take away all bargaining rights, and the health care contributions are scheduled to become part of negotiations once the four-year period is complete.

Newark-based labor union attorney Bennet Zurofsky, an NJ-CAN member who helped write the petition, acknowledged the statement may include "a small amount of hyperbole in it." But Zurofsky argued that without the health care piece, collective bargaining will not be meaningful.

"You’re bargaining over the crumbs," Zurofsky said.   

Rutgers labor professor Jeff Keefe agreed the legislation gives unions much less to bargain with, but he said the word "destruction" is "overkill." Unions can still negotiate wages, uniform allowances and other issues, Keefe said.

However, without health care as part of negotiations, an employer can demand wage cuts and a union has nothing to counter with, Keefe said.

Philip Harvey, a labor law professor at Rutgers, said in an email that the legislation amounts to a "’‘destruction of bargaining rights’ vis a vis health care expenses," but not all bargaining rights.

The elimination of bargaining for health care expenses will have indirect effects on other issues, Harvey said. Public-sector unions will enter negotiations in an ugly mood, making them go less smoothly, he said. Also, the unions will resist demands for other concessions more strongly in light of how the health care contributions are non-negotiable, he said.

Oliver and a spokesman for Sweeney both pointed out that collective bargaining for health care payments will be restored after the four-year period.

"The bill clearly does not destroy collective bargaining rights. In fact, I insisted upon the sunset provision that protects collective bargaining rights going forward, and the bill would not have advanced in the Assembly unless collective bargaining rights were protected," Oliver said in a statement. "Collective bargaining for health care resumes in 2015."

The ruling

NJ-CAN claimed the new pension and health benefits reform includes "the destruction of public sector collective bargaining rights." The legislation eliminates negotiations over health care contributions for a four-year period, a move that some experts said would make bargaining over other issues more difficult.

But you can’t say bargaining rights have been destroyed when unions can still negotiate wages and other issues, and when the health care negotiations are scheduled to resume at the end of the four years.

Since "destruction" is too strong of a word to explain the impacts on unions, we rate the statement Half True.

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Our Sources

NJ-CAN, Petition Demanding Removal of Sweeney and Oliver from Leadership Positions, Aug. 9, 2011

Courier Post, Liberal group goes after 'Christie-crats,' Aug. 9, 2011, N.J. progressive Democrats plan to recall Gov. Christie, Aug. 9, 2011

Interview with Hetty Rosenstein, Communication Workers of America, Aug. 10, 2011

Interview with Tim and Joanne O’Neill, NJ-CAN, Aug. 10, 2011

Interview with Jeffrey Keefe, Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations, Aug. 11, 2011

Email and phone interviews with Philip Harvey, Rutgers University School of Law, Aug. 11, 2011

Email interview with Alan Hyde, Rutgers University School of Law, Aug. 11, 2011

Interview with Bennet Zurofsky, labor union attorneyand NJ-CAN member, Aug. 11, 2011

New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, Implementing the 2011 Pension and Health Benefit Reforms, July 25, 2011

New Jersey Department of the Treasury, Pension and Health Benefits Reform 2011: Frequently Asked Questions, accessed Aug. 11, 2011

Pension and health benefits reform law
, accessed Aug. 11, 2011

Email interview with Tom Hester Jr., spokesman for Assembly Democrats, Aug. 11, 2011

Email interview with Chris Donnelly, spokesman for Senate President Stephen Sweeney, Aug. 11-12, 2011

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Democratic group claims New Jersey’s pension and health benefit reform destroys bargaining rights for public-sector employees

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